What is Landscape Architecture?

What is Landscape Architecture?

I’m often hesitant to tell people that I’m a landscape architect. It’s not because I have anything to hide – it’s due to the misconception that comes with the title. What is landscape architecture? People tend to hear the word “landscape” and ignore the “architect” that follows. Reactions often range from “you should look at my yard” to “winter must be your slow season”.  I tend to cringe at most responses, but politely try to explain what I do. I think that removing the word “landscape” from the title and substituting it with something else, such as “site”, would do a lot to avoid confusion, but the ASLA isn’t about to alter a name used since the 1800s. We therefore need to keep educating the public about landscape architecture, in any way that we can.  

In the meantime, I have started to tell people that I’m a type of architect that designs outdoor spaces. I then let them know that we are called landscape architects but our work isn’t limited to planting design, and that the vast majority of us do not perform any construction or installation. I also let them know that all 50 U.S. states require licensure for landscape architects, due to our impact on the public’s health, safety, and welfare.

Landscape architecture is a very broad field. The scale of work can range from very small spaces to entire regions, and the scope of design and planning can also vary widely. Examples of landscape architectural projects can include parks/recreation sites and facilities; streetscapes and other urban spaces; green infrastructure/storm water management; office and commercial sites; academic and corporate campuses; housing developments; hotel facilities and resorts; residential properties; green roofs; landscape art and earth sculpture; hospital grounds and therapeutic gardens; historic preservation; environmental restoration; transportation corridors and facilities; and urban/regional planning.

A landscape architect’s design work often begins with analysis of an existing site, followed by the design of schematic plans for the property. We later design and produce construction drawings and specifications, which contractors will follow to build/install our designs. Our construction drawings typically include, at minimum, the layout and specification of site features (such as walkways, parking areas, structures, and athletic facilities); grading and storm drainage design; a planting plan; and construction detailing.

I find it ironic that a profession having such a large and beneficial impact on the public is so misunderstood. I hope that significant progress is made to dispel its myths before too long. It would be nice to tell people that I’m a landscape architect and typically get responses like this: “Great – What types of projects do you design?”

What are your thoughts on our misunderstood profession? Let us know in the comments below!

This blog post first appeared on Land Perspectives.

Images via Landscape Voice


  1. Just tell them the building architects do the boxes, LA’s do everything else (or can); with the caveat that sometimes LAs do interiors, and BAs sometimes do exteriors.

  2. same drama, here, in Portugal!

  3. Thank you Alice for sharing your opinion.
    The same is true here in Chile! 
    In my case I am also Landscape Designer and Psychologist, what has allowed me to better explain the difference between each of them!
    I am currently channelling everything through Horticultural Therapy, newly certified in 2011.
    But, finally, what is really important to me, is the end result and what one can deliver and contribute to the community.
     So the truth is that the theme already not bother me all.
    Greetings from Chile!
  4. “I’m a landscape architect – that’s everything outside of a building”…

    Not 100% accurate, but so much easier giving people a one-liner than a long-winded explanation..

  5. I think “Stop worrying about what ‘people’ think. Only the opinion of clients matter to the professional.”

    If you wanted a field whose name would impress people you should have chosen more carefully.



    (secretly) Lady Gaga


  6. The same state.In China.

    I’m a landscape architect”

    “Oh,the planter”

  7. I’m with you Rob. Most people that don’t know what LAs do will never hire an LA. I only care about the people who might hire me. Everyone else can think I mow yards and spread fertilizer.

    Besides design professionals have been through the meat grinder during this last recession/depression. I imagine that we LAs have bigger fish to fry as a profession. 

  8. I have run into this too. I like plants but the plant whisperer conversation people like to have about the natural environment is pretty limiting. I think it is our job as a profession to start an interesting conversation with people about landscape when these issues arise. It is part of being a professional to be able to have a informative and interesting conversation with people about your work, otherwise no now will understand or respect what we do.

  9. Thank you for your post Alice, we have exactly the same issue here in Czech Republic. It definetely is NOT about the name of the profession but about the performance of the profession itself and its promotion and self representation. BUT. The hardest thing to do is to get through the architects who are historically established so called design profession here and to gain their respect. Unfortunately we do not work with them but after them (in other words, we make planting design after all the other work is done). LA are almost never hired as lead designers nor consultants here. I am involved in both, academy and practise and I am trying to work thru this issue but I must say, I havent found yet the right point or moment where to break the circle (circle of the almost no promotion of the profession, unsifficient demand from the clients, low quality of avaiable supplies=student and graduates and absolutely no legal background). Any thought on this are strongly appreciated. Stop complaining and start working is one attitude (probably a bottom up process), but how to do it vice versa and start e.g. in the academy?

  10. I have some scale insects on the plant by my door, and the flower in the pot, there, I water it everyday, but it’s got one yellow leaf, what should I do ?

  11. It’s interesting because one of my best friends was trying to get into an undergrad LA program for awhile and finally got in so I was excited for her, but didn’t really find out what landscape architecture was about until I saw some of the projects she had to do. I find it to be kind of crazy that all along I knew of landscape architecture, but never really understood what it was about, and now I’m actually interested in pursuing a MLA myself. I already have an environmentally-related background (I study Environmental Governance), and designing aspects of the environment we live in while using elements of sustainability is insanely appealing to me – I just wish I understood sooner what landscape architecture was all about!

  12. Thanks for all the comments! For those of you who believe that our existing clients’ opinions are the only things that matter, I have to disagree. Although the average person on the street would probably never hire us, the more the word gets out in general about what landscape architects are capable of designing, the more work will come our way. I’m speaking primarily about the work that engineers and architects are doing that should instead be designed by landscape architects. Even educating your neighbor or a new acquaintance could pay dividends, since they might be friends with a land developer, college campus facilities director, or someone else in a decision-making position who could send work in our direction. I am speaking as a business owner, and this has worked in my favor. However, even for those of you who don’t own a landscape architecture practice, I feel that it’s important to educate others about our profession, since it benefits all of us as a whole. Grass-roots efforts do work!

  13. Well maybe I should have put it another way. I actually do care about the profession getting more recognition and through the years I’ve done more than my fair share of educating the public. I just don’t get my undies in a bind because someone asks me to look at their backyard or wonders why my hands aren’t calloused. I actually don’t have a problem being associated with landscape, pickup trucks, soil, plants, mulch, etc. I might be an RLA who works on a computer, but I don’t consider myself any more important than a person that works with their hands. Besides what’s wrong with doing planting design only or (heaven forbid) actually performing construction or installation? If I did construction would that make me any less a landscape architect?

    What’s really funny half the time after I explain to people what LAs do, they still don’t really understand what we do and ask me more landscaping questions. So I just don’t get in a snit over such things, life is too short.

    If I’m at a cocktail party or a networking event I’m more interested in getting to know other people and maybe making new connections, as opposed to educating the general public about my profession.  I think a lot of us come off as insecure, boring or just plain creepy when we feel we need to teach people about what we do all the time in social situations.

    Lastly, I think the best way for LAs to keep civils and architects out of our lane is to continue to do landscape/site design better than they can. It also wouldn’t hurt for us to be more comfortable in our own skins. We shouldn’t need to impress people to feel validated as a design professionals. 

  14. Craig – I agree that l.a.s aren’t any more important than those who do construction/installation. I still think it’s important to clarify to people that we are in a different field, however. In social situations, I’m NOT talking about announcing, “Hey everyone, I’m a landscape architect, and this is what I do…” In those situations, I only explain the profession if someone asks what I do for a living. Like you mentioned, some people still don’t get it, but at least I can say I tried. A lot of this has to do with the way we describe it, though — See the second paragraph of my post. Since I started using that method of explanation, I have gotten a lot fewer of those “blank stares” or questions about their yards.

  15. To be fair Alice, I have to confess we’ve had this conversation before here on L8 on a couple of different threads, so I was spring loaded and ready to snap after reading your first few sentences in your original post. I’m sorry for ambushing you when you perhaps unknowingly opened up a touchy subject.

    That said, I just feel that we LAs do ourselves more harm by being offended when people think of us as landscapers. I used to get all uptight about it, but I knew I had to let it go when I showed a relative (who didn’t understand my degree in “landscaping”) a small streetscape project I worked on. After walking the project for fifteen minutes pointing out design decisions, brick inlays, site furnishings, lighting and how we had to work around existing utilities, his only comment was how much he liked the way I lined the trees up. That’s when I learned that some people will never get it. So now when I am referred to as the younger cousin who is an “architectural landscaper… you know, he’s the one that tells them where the trees go”, I just shake my head and laugh.

    In social situations I just take a different approach. I know if that blank stare turns into a question about their backyard, that’s an opportunity to find out if they’re a good prospect. Being open to making small talk can take you anywhere. How great would it be to spin a stupid question about flower pots into a built project for your portfolio? It hasn’t happened yet for me, but I believe it will happen before it’s all said and done.

  16. It’s also funny how sometimes it’s hard to define what we *are*, as opposed to what we are not.

    Landscape architects aren’t

    – statisticians

    – botanists

    – contractors

    – engineers

    – historians

    – technicians

    – ecologists

    – painters

    – public spokesmen

    – scientists

    – sociologists, etc etc

    But we use skills/knowledge from each of these professions and many more. I sometimes think of my work as opposite to engineering, where you must know a lot of stuff on almost nothing : I know almost nothing on just about everything.

  17. Craig — That’s not a problem — It’s good to hear others’ opinions. I had originally posted this in my own blog, and it was meant for a wide audience (non-l.a.s) as an educational tool about the profession. The managing editor of Land8 then asked if I would be willing to post this here as well. I was at first hesitant, since I would basically be “preaching to the choir”, and I wasn’t sure how it would be received, but agreed to post it with some minor revisions. I am also new to Land8 so I hadn’t seen the similar discussions. I’m glad this has generated some discussion, though. 

    Regarding your relative who couldn’t see past the plantings, I’ve had some similar experiences — one that really stands out in my mind is when I was a member of a business referral group. Even after giving presentations about landscape architecture, a couple of individuals in the group still believed I only did “landscaping”, and one thought that the realtor in the group would be a great source of referrals for me since I could “add to the curb appeal” of the houses that she was listing. Over the years I’ve learned not to get defensive when someone misunderstands, because some people will never get it. 

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